Films I loved in November 2016

30 November 2016

Amy Adams as Dr Louise Banks in Arrival

I’ve admired the French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve for some time now, even when I haven’t completely embraced all aspects of some of his films, so I approached Arrival with cautious anticipation. It has turned out to be one of my favourite films this year. Arrival belongs to the long tradition of science-fiction that provides a potent political allegory, in this case it is one of the less common alien-themed films that argues for social cohesion rather than promoting fear of outsiders. It also belongs to the hard science-fiction traditional of seriously exploring its premise, in this case the implications and practicality behind communicating with aliens. It also belongs to the more philosophical tradition where its premise is used to explore more abstract concepts such as language, communication, memory and time. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s a very emotional and personal story driven by the film’s protagonist, linguistics professor Dr Louise Banks played by Amy Adams in one or two outstanding performances from her in a film released this month.


Amy Adams as Susan Morrow in Nocturnal Animals

The other film this month featuring Amy Adams at the top of her game is Nocturnal Animals, the second feature film by the multi-talented Tom Ford. The story-within-a-story structure and ambiguous ending demands that the audience ask themselves how the fictional neo-western revenge story being read by Adam’s character, art gallery owner Susan Morrow, relates to her own stylish neo-noir story of lost love and bitterness. I was captivated by all aspects of the film and I’m still wrestling with its themes of revenge, catharsis, suffering and finding meaning through art (or perhaps more troubling, the inability of art to do anything more than symbolise and reflect).


Hayley Squires as Katie Morgan and Dave Johns as Daniel Blake in I, Daniel Blake

In I, Daniel Blake director Ken Loach along with long-term collaborator screenwriter Paul Laverty do what they do best by delivering a moving and angry film about inequality, poverty and social injustice. The Kafkaesque scenario of a man being made to look for work to maintain his benefits despite being told he is unfit for work will only seem implausible or exaggerated to those who have never fallen on hard times. This is one of Loach’s best films and the scene in the food bank is one of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced in a film this year.


Sasha Lane as Star and Shia LaBeouf as Jake in American Honey

American Honey showcases everything Andrea Arnold excels at: seamlessly combining professional and non-professional actors, creating visual intimacy and naturalism, and underscoring the energetic ‘in the moment’ feel of the film with class and social commentary. Newcomer Sasha Lane is a revelation as the 18-year-old Star who joins up with a group of young travelling salespeople who like to party and express their pursuit of the American Dream through motivation business rhetoric and hiphop lyrics.

Joe Alwyn

Joe Alwyn as Billy Lynn in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Unfortunately I didn’t get to see Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk projected at 120 frames per second or in 3D, but I still got the sense through its use of sound, editing and camera positioning of how this off-kilter film was experimenting with a new style of heightened character subjectivity. The way Lee collapses the disorientating spectacle of soldiers being used as stage decoration during a football halftime show with Lynn’s (newcomer Joe Alwyn) intruding memories of battle is captivating and disturbing, providing a powerful critique of the treatment and exploitation of young men sent off to war.


Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander and Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I more or less enjoyed the Harry Potter films, but by no means would I consider myself a fan. So I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of a new prequel franchise directed by David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter films. The beautifully realised 1930s New York setting and inventive action sequences certain helped to win me over, but this is a strong character driven film with timely themes about persecution and the folly of making sweeping generalisations about groups of people (or creatures).


Ella Havelka in Ella

Douglas Watkin’s Australian documentary Ella, about dancer Ella Havelka, is a warm and and inspiring film that through its story of personal accomplishments explores issues of cultural and personal identity. Havelka is a compelling and likeable subject with a fascinating background as a young girl from the country town of Dubbo, whose passion for dance lead her to learn ballet, but also to train with the acclaimed Bangarra Dance Theatre, before becoming the first Indigenous dancer to join the Australian Ballet.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Part 8

30 July 2011

I’m half way through the festival and a few people have asked what my favourite films have been so far. Out of the 30+ I’ve seen, and excluding retrospective screenings and short films, here are my ten highlights at the half way point:

13 Assassins | no more screenings
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer | Thu 4 Aug
I Am Eleven | Tue 2 Aug
Jane Eyre | no more screenings
| Mon 1 Aug
 | Sat 30 July (today)
Sing Your Song | Sun 31 July
Surviving Life | Sun 31 July
Tomboy | no more screenings
The Yellow Sea | Tue 2 Aug

Under the Hawthorn Tree

Under the Hawthorn Tree

I began Friday with Zhang Yimou’s Under the Hawthorn Tree. It’s a sweet and ultimately sad romance film set during the Cultural Revolution in China. The use of inter-titles throughout the film to explain entire pieces of missing action at first makes the film feel very episodic and disjointed. However, as it gently unfolds it does pleasingly deliver a gentle story of forbidden love during an era of repression. It becomes shamelessly emotive towards the end and while my resistance crumbled and I became very choked up, I did question if the film had really earned the right to be so overtly manipulative. I never felt a connection between the personal and the political and resolved that it is simply a moving film of unfulfilled love. Maybe that’s all it needs to be and while it’s a minor work from Zhang I still enjoyed it.

The personal and the political is very much established in Route Irish, to the point that it is at times blatantly didactic, which is something that director Ken Loach is occasionally guilty of. Still, a minor Loach film is better than most other films and I got a lot out of this angry condemnation of the way Allied soldiers and contractors in Iraq have abused the locals. The film somewhat plays out as a detective narrative with the protagonist trying to piece together the events that lead to the death of his best friend. Loach includes some expectedly observant commentary on what class of people go to serve and die in war and what class stay home to profit from the results. Audience sympathies are dramatically shifted away from the lead character as the film tackles issues such as the use of torture and revenge, in a way that is distinctively Loach.

Before I get into the short film program, I should quickly mention the short film Bunce, which I saw on Wednesday. Written, narrated and featuring Stephen Fry, it’s based on one of Fry’s childhood experiences. It’s a charming enough film, but the story is not much more than an anecdote.

All Flowers in Time

All Flowers in Time

I’m booked into three of the short films programs and the first one was International Shorts – Misfits, a program of slightly offbeat films. The session started with Ghost, which apart from one eerie effect of a chicken bone marionette coming to life, didn’t have much else of interest. The bar was then raised considerably with All Flowers in Time, by Tarnation director Jonathan Caouette who I wish would direct more as I love his sensibility. All Flowers in Time is best described as a fusion of video art, suburban gothic and monster movie. (Yes, I know I ripped that off the program notes, but I wrote that bit and was rather pleased with it so I figured it’s OK!) In uses its train tunnel location to create a menacing atmosphere, with the power of suggestion being used to create the sensation of dread. I got more laughs out of Las Palmas than I have from anything else that I’ve seen at MIFF this year. Director Johannes Nyholm creates a mini-resort populated by marionettes and then casts a baby in the roll of an obnoxious, demanding and generally ugly tourist. It works brilliantly. Finally, The Unliving does something new with the well-worn zombie genre by having a future society where zombies are now the norm and used for menial labour. Just as story got going it abruptly finished, leaving me feeling that the film had been made as if it were the beginning of a feature. If that is the case then I hope the filmmakers get the required attention from the right people so that they can continue the story. I’ll line up for a ticket right now. A great way to conclude an overall excellent program of shorts.

Finally, to back track a little bit, on Thursday I saw Sion Sono’s Cold Fish. The story of a passive man who is drawn into a world of murder by a charismatic and more powerful man reminded me of Snowtown, although it’s a very different film. Unlike Snowtown, Cold Fish simply offers a straightforward depiction of Alpha Male behaviour to deliver a few transgressive delights. I’d heard that in the earlier screening there was one very vocal audience member who found all the violence against women extremely funny, making the film extremely unpleasant to watch. In my screening the audience laughed out of shock more consistently at the audacity of all the forms of violence, which I had no problem with. Having been a big fan of Sono’s other films, I was a little disappointed by Cold Fish, especially its meandering middle section. It does reach a wickedly fun climax of absurd nastiness towards the end and how can you not admire a sex scene/fight to the death that takes place on a blood and entrails covered floor?

There was a large secondary school group in the audience for Under the Hawthorn Tree, who became incredibly giggly during the tamest of tame scenes where the potential for a bit of heavy petting was mildly suggested. I was genuinely surprised by their response as I thought kids these days were all corrupted by the plethora of sexual images that they are meant to always be bombarded with.

Maybe they are simply too busy trying to find something to wear for a fancy dress party. I heard this random snippet of conversation on a tram the other day while heading into the city: ‘I want to go dressed as a cactus but I have no idea how to look like a cactus’. Then later in the same day I witnessed a young guy serenading his lady companion with the theme to Family Ties. I hope he got lucky that night. I hope the cactus guy did too.

Meanwhile, my MIFF fatigue is causing some wild mood swings. While sitting in Fed Square between sessions I caught myself giving the finger to a seagull that was pissing me off. Yep, I gave the bird to a bird. Later that day I hit a guy with a piece of mandarin
peel, but in my defence I was aiming for a bin and I am uncoordinated.

Show us your MIFF
I’ve always considered myself a bit of a film soundtrack collector, but after discovering the full extent and range of what David O’Connell has collected over the years – over 4000 soundtracks – I happily concede defeat. David’s all-time favourite film is Alien and Jerry Goldsmith’s score has a lot to do with that. David’s been coming to MIFF for the last five years and has been steadily building on how much he attends. This year he’s looking like he’ll get to 55 films. He’s most looking forward to Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Elena, and to survive the festival he always has his pockets stuffed with power bars and a semi-crushed vegemite sandwich or two. So far A Separation has been the best thing David’s seen, and he’s also loved Tomboy and Littlerock. His all-time favourite MIFF experience was in 2009 seeing Nicolas Winding Refn, one of his favourite directors, in conversation followed by a screening of his amazing film Bronson. David’s only real MIFFhap is the misery he inflicts upon himself through his determination to never walk out of a cinema, despite being strongly compelled to do so several times last year. David writes about film at In Film Australia, 20/20 Filmsight and his own blog Screen Fanatic, where he is currently posting several MIFF reviews.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Looking for Eric (2009)

25 September 2009
Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) and Eric Cantona

Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) and Eric Cantona

Depressed and suicidal, Eric Bishop is a broken man. He is still filled with guilt, shame and sorrow after years ago having walked out on his daughter and his first wife. He is now living with two freeloading stepsons from another failed marriage and the two boys barely disguise their contempt for him. Worse still is that the older boy is getting very sociable with the local psychopathic gangster. Eric has little to live for except the company of his good spirited mates, who he works with at the local post office, and his memory of the glory days of football team Manchester United. The film’s working class characters, social realist style of filmmaking and general bleakness certainly recall many of the other films that director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty have been making together for over ten years, including It’s a Free World…, My Name is Joe and Sweet Sixteen. However, Looking for Eric begins to defy many of the expectations that you might have for a Ken Loach film when Eric Cantona, the French-born England football player who plays himself in the film, mysteriously begins appearing to give the other Eric advice on how to sort out his life.

Cantona’s appearances are never explained or rationalised (he could be a phantom, a hallucination or a projection) but his presence gives Looking for Eric a quirky comedic element that transforms it into a feel good film about taking charge of your life. Prior to playing himself in Looking for Eric, Cantona has had a career as an actor (including a role as the French ambassador in Elisabeth) and he has a natural screen presence. He plays himself with a gentle sense of self-parody, offering Eric lots of sage pieces of advice in the form of odd metaphors and often in French, much to Eric’s annoyance. Television actor Steve Evets portrays Eric with a tremendous amount of empathy and he is able to evoke the audience’s sympathy very quickly with just a look.

Looking_for_Eric_-_high_res_218.jpg_cmyk_scaledAlong with Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, Loach’s previous Ae Fond Kiss… and many of Shane Meadows’s films, Looking for Eric is a more cheery contribution to English Miserablist cinema where the plight of the working-class is not all despair and disaster. There is a lot of hope in Looking for Eric and in particular Loach captures the joy and happiness that can be found by simply having a good group of friends who will look out for you. The only downside to Looking for Eric is that the big climatic event that the film builds to is entertaining but so unlikely that you do lose your suspension of disbelief. The film’s affirming message would have had more power had the resolution been more probable. Nevertheless, Looking for Eric is about a man who speaks to a football superstar that nobody else can see so perhaps demanding too much realism is unwarranted.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Film review – Frozen River (2008)

17 February 2009

frozen_river_12-low-resRay Eddy is a middle-aged woman whose gambling addict husband has just skipped town, abandoning her and her two children right before Christmas. Ray’s part time job does not pay nearly enough to cover day-to-day expenses let alone Christmas presents. While trying to track down her husband, Ray inadvertently becomes part of a people smuggling operation when she crosses paths with Lila, an American Indian woman from the nearby Mohawk reservation. Lila is also a mother who is struggling to make money so the pair reluctantly become partners, hiding illegal immigrants in the boot of Ray’s car to then drive them across the border from Canada to the USA. Frozen River is a decent independent film from debut writer/director Courtney Hunt. Despite initially looking like it will be a bleak exercise in socio-realist misery, Frozen River is an engaging and tense series of crisis points where the potential for tragedy is always around the corner.

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Film review – It’s a Free World… (2007)

4 December 2008

It is estimated that 90% of low paid-work in London is done by the proportion of migrant workers who are the new class of transient casual day labourers. After being falsely promised good wages and full time work, these unskilled, non-English speakers from Eastern Europe, South America and the Middle East are at the mercy of unscrupulous employers and a government reluctant to impose better regulations, else they upset the industries that are benefiting from the cheap labour.

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